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More research suggests that healthier school meals are linked to better academic performance. CREDIT: Thinkstock
Four years have passed since First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move! campaign, a national initiative to end childhood obesity. A major component of the program is centered upon school meals. Now experts are noticing a link between healthier food options and improved academic performance.
According to the campaign, many of our nation’s children consume at least half of their meals at school. For many others, these meals are the only ones that are regularly available to them. But roughly one in three children in the United States is either overweight or obese. In fact, childhood obesity rates have more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents over the last 30 years. With so many meals being delivered at school, overhauling our nationwide breakfast and lunch standards seems like a no-brainer.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 did just that, mandating healthier food options in U.S. schools. (Think less sugar, more fruits and veggies, low-fat dairy products, and more appropriate portion sizes.)
The changes, while aimed at combating the childhood obesity epidemic, have brought about an additional benefit – better performance in the classroom.
"It is simply impossible for a child to concentrate on learning when he or she is undernourished,” said nutritionist and health entrepreneur Josh Bezoni, co-founder of BioTrust Nutrition. “That basic fact is backed up by modern scientific research on 'brain foods' and the ways that our brains process information.”
According to Bezoni, a child who is not fed a balanced, nutritious diet is at a developmental disadvantage that can ultimately affect memory retention, concentration and critical thinking skills.
The CDC echoes the same idea. The agency reports that health-related factors, including hunger, can impair school performance. The good news is that the answer may be as simple as school breakfast. According to a 2012 study from Share Our Strength, a non-profit that spearheaded the No Kid Hungry campaign, kids who eat school breakfast are less likely to be absent. They also do better in math, averaging 17.5 percent higher math test scores. The organization estimates that increased attendance rates paired with higher math scores makes students 20 percent more likely to graduate from high school.
While boosting academic performance can certainly be fostered by healthier school meals, nutritious eating habits should also be reinforced at home.
“Many people are surprised to find that the eating routines that they adhered to when they were children become tough-to-break nutritional habits when they are older,” said Bezoni. “For example, if you grow up eating ice cream every night after dinner with your parents, it's likely that you will find it difficult not to reach for a sweet snack after dinner, even as an adult.”
Josh Bezoni says it's vital for parents and schools to be actively involved in teaching their children how to make intelligent decisions about food and nutrition.
According to the Nutritional Resource Foundation, students who attend schools with healthy meal options may be more likely to show increased concentration, more on-task behavior, increased cognitive development, and an ability to think more clearly, objectively and rationally. More specifically, these results were observed in a Wisconsin charter school that far exceeded the requirements. This particular school offers up five servings of fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains daily. The program also eliminated artificial coloring, as well as artificial flavoring and sweeteners.